Helping swimmers find the perfect race start

Biomechanics researchers are using cutting-edge technology to help elite swimmers get the perfect race starts.

PhD researcher Elaine Tor measured the starting positions and underwater swimming techniques of elite swimmers to maximise their performance in the initial phase of a race.

“Elite swimmers enter the water travelling about 6.0 metres per second, then underwater at about 2.4 metres per second, but by the time they surface they’re travelling at between 1.8 to 2.0 metres a second, depending on the event,” Ms Tor said.

“Our research focussed on how to minimise that rapid deceleration in the first 15 meters of a race.”

Testing involved Australian Olympic champions and rising stars at Swimming Australia’s National Training Centre in Canberra, where electronic starting blocks and high speed cameras recorded push-off force, velocity, split times and dive technique. Meanwhile acoustic sensors, a 3D laser scanner and specific mathematical coding were used to calculate total drag and wave drag acting on the swimmers.

A major aim was to reduce the amount of resistance – particularly wave drag – slowing the swimmer during the underwater phase. As part of this, researchers entered the individual body characteristics of swimmers into highly-technical MATLAB codes from US Navy research. These codes enabled the direct measurement of wave drag through a ‘longitudinal cut’ method.

“We took a big step in this field of research by measuring wave drag directly for elite swimmers with advanced analysis from acoustic sensors, which map the water’s surface as swimmers pass beneath,” Ms Tor said. “Previously this had only been done for life size mannequins, ships and aquatic animals.”

This data on drag, speed and depth was combined to calculate the fastest starting techniques. Results were fed back to coaches to develop personalised training advice for athletes, while researchers tracked the effect of these changes on performance.

This study with Swimming Australia is one of more than 20 research projects between Victoria University and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in an ongoing partnership across a range of elite programs. Ms Tor said the joint research project had provided her with the best of both worlds.

“I’m lucky to be using all the AIS equipment and technology within a high performance program, while at the same time having Victoria University’s academic support, research facilities and experienced supervisors to direct me on everything from research design to publishing,” she said.

The study was supervised by Victoria University Institute of Sport, Exercise & Active Living researchers Dr Kevin Ball and Professor Damian Farrow with the Australian Institute of Sport’s Dr David Pease.

Ms Tor completed her Honours at Victoria University in 2011, where she identified starting performance as a major contributor to swimming success and an area needing more research. She has now produced individualised recommendations on this for Australia’s best swimmers.

“This research is already producing good results in the pool and we hope it will lead to more gold medals at major competitions,” she said. “Eventually I’d like to work in high performance swimming programs as a biomechanist. With the practical experience of my PhD I now feel well placed to achieve that.”

This project was one of 20 featured in the new Research Highlights publication.

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